The Cruelest War

What does it mean when you read that at least fifteen million Chinese died during the war with Japan? Or that “around three-quarters of a million Filipinos, Japanese and Americans would pay with their lives” for General Douglas MacArthur’s dream of “liberating” the Philippines (then still a US colony)? Or that “in the course of the war 116,000 of 122,000 seamen serving Japan’s pre-war merchant fleet were killed or wounded, mostly by American submarines”? Or that “the 9 March 1945 American bomber attack on Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, and rendered a million homeless”?

These are terrifying figures. And there are many more World War II statistics, some, as every schoolchild knows, on an even more monstrous scale. But the problem with such figures is that they are just that, figures, which do not help us to imagine the suffering of individual human beings. In fact, they have the opposite effect; they create distance by abstraction.

The great merit of Max Hastings’s many books on war is his skill at bringing the numbers, as it were, down to earth. Through the imaginative power of his writing, we get an inkling (and we cannot expect more than that) of what it must have been like to slog one’s way up a cliff at Iwo Jima, or be firebombed in Tokyo, or be tortured in a Japanese POW camp, or be hit by a torpedo or a kamikaze plane full of explosives. One example, from Iwo Jima:

In a shellhole, a corpsman asked Private First Class Arthur Rodriguez to hold a man’s protruding intestines while he applied sulphur powder, then pushed them back into his abdomen. A nearby explosion caused body parts to rain down upon them. The young BAR man tried to focus his mind on his sweetheart, Sally, back home rather than upon the ghastly spectacle before him.

This, too, from Iwo Jima:

Corporal Red Doran, an Iowan BAR gunner from 3/9th Marines, lost his sight to blast. Evacuated, his bedmates had to endure the ghastly experience of hearing Doran join two other men in similar plight, singing “Three Blind Mice.”

There is much more of this, on all fronts. Although Hastings displays no sympathy whatever for the Japanese leaders who drove their country into a catastrophic war, his empathy for the common Japanese soldier, or civilian, is no less deeply felt than for the US Marine or British Tommy. The best way to get some idea of what these people experienced is to quote their own words. A Japanese major, Mitsuo Abe, during the retreat in Burma:

Among the stream of vehicles, men of all manner of units commingled, many of them wounded. Some had their arms in improvised slings…some were bandaged with towels or strips of shirt. Some had lost eyes, others cried aloud for their mangled limbs to be cut off, others again raved in malarial fever. There were those who pleaded with friends to make their …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.